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What are IPP sentences?

Sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP sentences) were available for courts to impose from 2005 to 2012. They were designed to detain offenders who posed a significant risk of causing serious harm to the public through further serious offences in prison until they no longer posed such a risk.

IPP sentences are indeterminate as opposed to fixed-term sentences. They have a minimum term that must be served in custody, sometimes called a ‘tariff’ that must be served before a prisoner can be considered for release by the Parole Board. The prisoner can then only be released once the Parole Board is satisfied the prisoner no longer needs to be confined for the safety of the public. Release is never automatic, and prisoners can be detained indefinitely if the Parole Board decides it is not safe to release them.

When released, a person serving an IPP sentence will be on licence, subject to conditions. Breaching the conditions of the licence may result in the person being recalled to prison. If recalled, a person must remain in prison until the Parole Board is satisfied that custody is no longer necessary for public protection. The licence will be in force indefinitely until its termination. People serving an IPP sentence are eligible to have termination of their licence considered by the Parole Board ten years after their first release.

Early criticisms of the sentence

From their introduction, IPP sentences were much criticised. Key early issues identified included:

  • The provision was too broad and caught up less serious offenders
  • The many prisoners serving IPP sentences, particularly those with short minimum terms, put additional strain on the prison and parole systems because prisoners could not access interventions they needed to demonstrate they were no longer a risk and so could be released.

IPP sentences were abolished in 2012, but not for existing prisoners

IPP sentences were abolished for offenders convicted on or after 3 December 2012, with the Government stating the system was “not defensible”. However, the change was not made retrospective. It didn’t apply to existing prisoners who were already serving those sentences at the time.

Number of IPP prisoners

As of 31 December 2022, there were 1,394 unreleased IPP prisoners in custody in England and Wales. In addition to these unreleased IPP prisoners, there were 1,498 recalled IPP prisoners in custody, making 2,892 IPP prisoners in total. As of 31 December 2022, all but 35 unreleased IPP prisoners had passed their tariff date.

Continued pressure for change

Following abolition of the IPP sentence pressure for change continued. Campaigning organisations continue to highlight the damaging effects of the IPP sentence on those still serving them and their families.

The Justice Committee in 2022 published a report which identified and discussed the ongoing problems with IPP sentences. These included the psychological harm of the IPP sentence on individuals which itself can be a considerable barrier to progression for some IPP prisoners. The Committee also noted the limited availability of appropriate courses for IPP prisoners and the lack of transparency around the evaluation of programmes relied on to help to determine risk. The Committee highlighted a “growing concern” about the population of recalled IPP prisoners and questioned whether IPP prisoners receive enough support on release.

The Committee concluded that while some efforts had been made in the last ten years to reduce the IPP prison population, not enough had been done. The Committee’s primary recommendation to Government was that it should bring forward legislation to enable a resentencing exercise in relation to IPP sentenced individuals. The Committee also recommended that the Government publish a new IPP action plan to be updated annually. It supported calls for the Government to legislate to reduce the qualifying period for terminating a licence from ten years to five. The Committee said Government should examine the issue of recalls in depth and devote greater energy to tacking the “recall merry go round”.

The Government’s position

The Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s report rejected the Committee’s primary recommendation on resentencing. The Justice Secretary stated that resentencing would give rise to an unacceptable risk to public protection.  The Government said that the IPP Action Plan “remains the best option by which these offenders can progress towards safe release”. An updated plan, due at the end of March 2023, has not yet been published. The Government also rejected the Committee’s recommendation for a reduction of the qualifying period for terminating a licence from ten to five years.

The Justice Committee expressed regret that the Government had rejected its recommendation on resentencing. The Chair of the Committee, Bob Neill said the response was “a missed opportunity to right a wrong”. Campaigning organisations also expressed disappointment with the Government response.

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